The Top-15 Performances in a Zombie Movie

Zombie movies are often praised by fans for their frightening sequences, their artful (or artless) use of gore, and their political/philosophical messages.  However, I think an oft-overlooked quality that can really make or break a zombie film is the performances of the actors.  (You’d think that acting would obviously be the most important part of any film, but it seems not to be so with zombie fans.)  It’s very infrequently that I’m at a horror convention and I hear a conversation like-

Horror Fan 1: Say, why do you like that zombie film so much?

Horror Fan 2: Well, the acting’s just incredible.

But good acting is vital to the scary/cool experience we expect from a zombie film!  As horror fans, I feel that because we’re so quick to praise this CGI monster or that Tom Savini effects shot, we too often neglect some of the awesome acting that goes on right under our noses.  So anyhow, I decided to put together a list of my favorite performances by actors in zombie movies.  (It was going to be a Top-10 List, but there was just so much good stuff that I had to make it a Top-15.)

15. Robert Englund– Zombie Strippers (2008)
Robert Englund’s performance as a strip club owner who is disgusted by his own strippers (to the point of being frightened of them) is one of the highlights of Zombie Strippers.  In addition to having played Freddy Krueger, Englund is a classically trained actor, and it really shows in this awesome, hilarious performance.  The above clip is probably my favorite scene in the film.

14. Stuart Devenie– Braindead/Dead Alive (1992)

As horror fans know, Suart Devenie’s performance as Father McGruder in Peter Jackson’s Braindead/Dead Alive is far, far too brief.  Yet, short as it is, it would be criminally remiss of me not to include it on a list like this.  Above is the scene in which he utters his immortal line: “I kick ass for the Lord!”
13. Bruce Willis–Planet Terror  (2007)

Yes, yes, I’m well aware that Rose McGowan had a machine-gun leg (that led to many awesome effects-shots).  But I’m also aware that Bruce Willis was totally awesome as the mentally-unstable Lieutenant Muldoon in Planet Terror.  The final scene where he is mutating is just sick (in a good way)!  Muldoon is reprehensible and pitiful at the same time; a zombie-catalyst antagonist, who can only be compared to Captain Rhodes in Day of the Dead.
12. Simon Pegg–Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Simon Pegg’s performance as the titular character in Shaun of the Dead was a masterstroke of comedy, and helped re-launch the zombie-comedy as a viable (and profitable) genre of film.  Enough said!
11. Bela Lugosi–White Zombie  (1932)

The first feature-length zombie film ever made contained one of the best performances in zombie-movie history.  Bela Lugosi’s turn as the conniving, maniacal, and possibly-homosexual “Murder” Legendre is unusually complicated and textured for a villain in a zombie movie.  His acting is really wonderful.  You can tell right from the outset that his character is evil, but only as the film progresses does Lugosi’s nuanced performance betray the depths of his character’s vileness and trickery.  (Also, this is early, good Lugosi, made well before he sort of “jumped the shark” and just started doing every horrible thing he was offered.)
10. & 9. Carrie-Anne Moss and Billy Connolly–Fido  (2006)

It’s a disappointment that Fido was such a huge flop at the box office (it cost $8 million to make, and grossed only about $400,000), because it contains so many good performances.  Tim Blake Nelson is great as an eccentric neighbor who keeps his dead wife as a zombie concubine, and the always-creepy Dylan Baker is, well.. reliably creepy.  But Carrie-Anne Moss and Billy Connolly steal the show.  Moss plays a frustrated 1950’s-style housewife who purchases a domestic servant-zombie against her husband’s wishes.  Connolly plays the zombie in question, and is a delight to behold.

For some reason, YouTube won’t let me embed it, but here’s a link to perhaps the best scene between Moss and Connolly.  There can be no question that Art (with, yes, a capital “A”) is happening here.  I love how Connolly is initially presented like a piece of furniture in the background.  And then Moss “brings him to life,” but only to passive-aggressively torment her husband.  The expressions on Zombie-Connolly’s face are priceless.  This scene is scary, funny, and deeply moving at the same time.

8. & 7. Joseph Pilato and Sherman Howard–Day of the Dead  (1985)

In George Romero’s Day of the Dead, Joseph Pilato plays Captain Rhodes, an archetypal antagonist, and perhaps the best (non-zombie) villain in a zombie movie ever.  He also has one of the best–and most satisfying– deaths in a zombie movie ever.  Sherman Howard plays “Bub,” one of the only zombies that horror-fans can list by name.  “Bub” challenges what a zombie can do within the Romero universe, and manages to be kind of sympathetic and endearing whilst still remaining a flesh-eating zombie.  The above clip is the best scene between the two, and, for many, the highlight of the film.

6. Woody Harrelson– Zombieland  (2009)

The top-grossing zombie film of all time also features, in my opinion, one of the top performances of all time in Woody Harrelson’s Tallahassee.  I honestly and earnestly thought he deserved an Oscar nomination for it.  (Sure, it’s a comedy, but if Robert Downey, Jr. can get nominated for Tropic Thunder…)  As Tallahassee, Harrelson is brash and bombastic (yet ultimately vulnerable), and plays perfectly against Jessee Eisenberg’s “straight man.”  (I can’t find a collection of Tallahassee’s highlights, so I’ve just posted the Zombieland trailer above.)
5. Mantan Moreland–King of the Zombies  (1941)

Born into a racist era when African-American actors were almost universally typecast as stereotypical butlers and chauffeurs, Mantan Moreland nonetheless emerged as top comedic actor in B-horror films (who frequently received billing above his white costars).  He made only two zombie films– King of the Zombies, and Revenge of the Zombies– and neither are great, but Moreland’s performances in them are very great.  (Above is a clip from King of the Zombies where I think Moreland’s acting just destroys everybody else onscreen.)

4. Ken Foree–Dawn of the Dead  (1978)

In George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Ken Foree gives the best dramatic performance by an actor in a zombie movie.  Period.  His understated style helps give the film its eerie tone.  Foree’s acting is “quiet” but very, very expressive at the same time.  The above clip is one of my favorites.  You get the moment of surprise when the child-zombies charge him, the regret as he tosses them away, the focus as he shoots them, and the slow realization afterwards.  Later in the clip, I love Foree’s reaction when the zombie comes to the doorway.  There is surprise, hesitation, and grim resolution.  It just feels real.  (Perhaps that is the highest compliment one can give to Foree’s acting.  When you watch him in a zombie film [he has done several], you think, “Man, that’s just how I’d react.”)
3. James Karen–Return of the Living Dead, Part II  (1988)

I think James Karen is the best comedic actor I’ve seen in a zombie film.  Consider the above clip from Return of the Living Dead, Part II where Karen’s character discovers a living zombie head inside a bag.  This is an utterly delightful scene, and it’s all Karen.  (Try to imagine it without him.  The other actors are wooden and not expressive at all.  And the special effects…  Yikes.)
2. James Karen–Return of the Living Dead  (1985)

What?  One actor can have two performances.  And thank goodness James Karen does, because his performances are totally awesome!  In the original Return of the Living Dead, Karen plays a medical warehouse supervisor who unwittingly unleashes a zombie-causing chemical.  In the above scene, his character begins to realize the horrible consequences of what he has done!
1. Allan Trautman–Return of the Living Dead (1985)

It is fitting, I think, that my list’s #1 zombie movie performance should go to… a zombie.  And what a zombie!  Allan Trautman’s portrayal of the Tarman Zombie in Return of the Living Dead is absolutely masterful.  Besides being the first time a zombie uttered “Braaaains!” onscreen (!!!), the Tarman Zombie established zombie-movement in some pretty incredible ways.  Tarman doesn’t walk like a hypnotized person, but neither does he move quite like a living human.  Instead, Tarman has a slippery, loosey-goosey gait that is eerily believable.  Trautman perfectly captures the movement of a thing that has been decaying and moldering for years, and now finds itself “alive” and on the hunt for brains.  After playing the Tarman Zombie, Trautman became a puppeteer for the Muppet Show, Greg the Bunny, Crank Yankers, and other puppet-based shows.  He is clearly a master at giving inanimate things “life,” and his performance ranks #1 on my list.

So anyhow, this is my list.  What’s on yours?

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